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Demystifying The Law Firm Client Relationship

Engaging on both sides of this dynamic through my career, I’ve probably spent more time thinking about the Law Firm Client Relationship than most sane people would.

Don’t get me wrong - some Law Firms, or partners within Law Firms, really “get it”. But many highly skilled, well-intentioned lawyers miss the opportunity to really understand their clients, grow trust and earn that “trusted advisor” status that makes the relationship truly rewarding. I know many General Counsels roll their eyes at the “own goals” Law Firms kick somewhere along the service delivery lifecycle. Unfortunately, those small things sometimes can undo the positives of the great legal work.

But why? Many Law Firms spend countless hours and dollars on business development and client engagement – Why doesn’t it always hit the mark? Here’s some of what I’ve observed and how to start fixing it.

Law Firm DNA. Law Firms are born from groups of smart lawyers who are very good at being lawyers. Law Firms often don’t have a customer service centric sales gene deep in their DNA like some other organisations. If you think about other industries driven by the success of their customer relationships, they obsess over every touchpoint with their customers - constantly re-evaluating how each interaction feels through the customer’s eyes.

Think about the way your favourite high-end retail brand, or luxury hotel, talks about “Customer Experience”. It’s not just about the product. They think about how their website flows, how it feels to walk into a store, what the lighting is like, how it smells, how they are greeted, what the packaging feels like, how they handle it when something goes wrong. They dissect every element.

Every interaction is an opportunity to turn a customer into a brand advocate. For many Law firms these skills may need to be learned rather than just existing innately within their DNA. Of course, these things CAN be learned, they just come a little less naturally for Law Firms.

Tough Conversations are Tough. Lawyers work hard. They put a lot of themselves into delivering for clients day in and day out. So, negative feedback can feel personal. This might be one of the reasons that some Law Firms find it difficult to ask the questions that elicit tough feedback. This misses the true opportunity; because those conversations can unlock the chance to deliver what the client really wants, setting Law Firms apart from their competitors. Candid conversations, handled the right way, can leave clients with the feeling of being heard and valued. That’s a great start towards deepening the relationship.

EVERY Meeting is a Relationship Meeting. Most firms have annual or bi-annual “Relationship Meetings” with their clients. But the truth is every meeting, in fact every phone call or email, is a relationship meeting. That doesn’t mean lawyers need to walk on eggshells around their clients or be unnatural; but it does mean that it’s worth thinking about each way you interact and what your client wants from that interaction – just like that high-end retail brand does. There is a Tibetan saying, “If you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves”. There is an analogy here. It’s not quite as catchy, but maybe the legal version is something like “if you take care of the emails, the billings will take care of themselves”.

Walking in the Client’s Shoes. If you’re a Law Firm partner, how well do you really know the top 5 things your client just can’t get to on their to-do list? Law firms often market services from a Law Firm perspective. “Let’s meet for a coffee and I’ll introduce my partner from the Corporate team”. But what about really putting on your “empathy hat”, put the capability statements to the side for a moment and getting curious about what the client needs.

Let me give you an example. I’ll bet you that every General Counsel or in-house team has a to-do list a mile long. On that list there will be potential templates, or workflows or self-help guidance notes, or short training packages, or one-page legal updates, or legal operations quick-win opportunities, that they would love to be able to get done but the daily firefighting means they languish. There’s plenty on that list that a Law Firm can get done without a big investment of time.

Instead of investing dollars on lunches, dinners and glossy brochures, what about investing some time to put a tick next to one of these to-dos. You’ll have saved your client time, helped the in-house team deliver for their clients, learned more about your client’s business, built a foundation for more work AND have a chance to introduce other practice areas in getting the job done. Your client will feel like you’re in the relationship for the long-term. On the few occasions I’ve seen this done well it left such a positive impression, it probably had the best ROI of any marketing effort that firm directed my way.

What Next?

I’ve been grateful to work with lawyers around the world who are among the most hard-working, dedicated people I know – they really care about doing their best. Their legal knowledge and skills are truly impressive. That should be the hard part, but it can be let down when a firm trips itself up elsewhere along the client-relationship path. But, when you get these other elements right, it gives lawyers the environment to really shine, delight their clients and feel more satisfied about what they do. It’s worth the effort. Nothing is more rewarding than a great relationship where both sides feel valued and appreciated.

Damien Sullivan

Founder & Principal

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